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Dozens and Dozens of Distros: Is It Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Katherine Noyes
Oct 21, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Well it was another relatively quiet week here in the Linux blogosphere, despite the arrival of a certain Saucy Salamander in town.

Dozens and Dozens of Distros: Is It Too Much of a Good Thing?

Linux Girl and the other regulars down at the blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Saloon had braced themselves for the worst as the Big Day approached, but the launch festivities appeared to be relatively subdued this time around. Perhaps more important, the tequila supplies held up nicely, so good cheer was easily maintained.

Linux Girl

It was actually another topic that generated some heated conversation over the course of the week -- a perennial one, at that, picked up once again by a recent poll.

"Poll Says Too Many Distros" was the title of the piece that broke the news, which has been the topic of more than a few lively conversations since.

It's one of those discussions that comes up again and again here in the Linux blogosphere, where "choice is good" is practically a mantra. Is that true in the world of distros as well, or can there be too much of a good thing?

Too Many Car Models?

"I don't really see where the problem is," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl. "Most newbie linux users I've come across just end up asking someone else or checking to see what is popular.

"This argument is similar to complaining that there are too many car models to choose from," Mack suggested. "I have yet to see someone complain about that."

Indeed, "there is just no such thing as 'Too Many Distributions,'" agreed Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone. "Due to Linux's open source nature, distributions can only help Linux evolve into an even better version of itself.

"Not every idea will make it, but even if a distribution fades from view like so many have, the ideas that made that distribution unique can be carried on," Stone explained. "I doubt that even many Linux users remember Eazel, but I'd wager there are a significant number that have heard of Nautilus."

In fact, "far from their being too many, even more should be encouraged," he opined. "They can only help Linux get better."

'There Can Never Be Too Many'

It may be true "in some abstract sense that there are too many distros, but I bet everyone who said there are too many believes that their own favorite is one of the ones that has to be kept," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien suggested. "Well, freedom means anyone can fork a project if they want to, and if they get enough support it will thrive.

"Otherwise, hands up everyone who is using MMC Interim Linux," O'Brien added. "Anyone? Bueller?"

It's important to "keep in mind that the industry is dominated by only a few distros, so smaller distros end up having to fill the small niches not well covered by the main players," noted Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. "If the smaller distros solve problems the larger ones don't want to, then there can never be too many distros."

'The Spectrum Is Wide'

Blogger Robert Pogson took a similar view.

"Of course there are not too many distros, just as there are not too many good ideas or too many pretty women," Pogson told Linux Girl. "Choice is good. Not having choice is slavery. Thank goodness that's going away."

There are "billions of users with many thousands of use cases," Pogson pointed out. "The spectrum is wide, from someone needing a little controller to make some device seem intelligent to the manager of a huge IT system needing thousands of computers to do the bidding of some large organization or to solve some huge problem.

"Most distros have some general-purpose outlook so they can be configured any way you like," he added.

'Some Standards to Be Followed'

The only thing to support the idea of "too many distros" is that "diversity makes it more difficult to distribute good software," Pogson pointed out.

"Creators of distros need to keep that in mind and maintain reasonable standards," he opined. "Creators of applications need to keep that in mind and follow those standards or ship everything in virtual machines... something that is feasible on current PCs but it certainly is not efficient."

Similarly, "let's make efforts to call people to collaborate massively on important issues," suggested Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

In addition, to improve "the visibility and choice of GNU/Linux options by the industry, let some group (democratically) list some standards to be followed," he added. "With this, we'll help OEM machine vendors to sell machines with GNU/Linux as the main and only OS. They will have an easier task choosing, and so will the new users."

'A Truckload of Copycats'

Rather than "are there too many distros," a better question might be, "Are there too few original distros?" Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol offered.

"Yeah, one might go to distro watch and see 600 distros, but then, 90 percent of them are based on Ubuntu," he explained. "So, no we don't have too many distros. We have too few original distros and a truckload of derivative copycats."

Ebersol would like to see more original distros, he told Linux Girl, "but then again, to create and maintain a distro is a laborious and hellish task," he pointed out. "It's not for everyone."

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took an even darker view.

'That Is Just a Mess'

"Too many distros? The answer is YES, but it's even worse than too many, it's what I call the 'Taco Bell problem,'" hairyfeet began. "It's the ILLUSION of too much choice when in reality you have no choice!

"You look at 'all this choice' and what do you see? Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat -- it's the same guts over and over and OVER with all the same problems," he asserted.

"Same DEs, same buggy WiFi, nothing really new or innovative," he added. "Where is the distro that gives a new 'never breaks' networking stack? Where is the distro that offers a Windows level support cycle?"

In short, "if you threw out all the 'it's the same crud with a new theme and just enough changes to break compatibility,' a good 90 percent of DistroWatch would disappear tomorrow!" hairyfeet concluded. "I'm all for innovation, I'm all for choice... what you have instead is wasted effort and reinventing the wheel so somebody can put out the same tired old junk with a new theme. That ain't choice, that is just a mess."

No Diminishing Effect

Not everyone saw it that way, however.

"We should probably remember that everything started somewhere, as an offshoot of something else, so what may begin life as a 'child' distro can someday become just as significant as the 'parent' distro in many ways -- Ubuntu and Debian would be a perfect example," Google+ blogger Brett Legree pointed out.

"Debian is in no way diminished by the existence of Ubuntu as far as I am concerned, and many people like Linux Mint, and so forth," he added.

Still, "I am happy to stick with the main distributions for my own purposes," Legree concluded, "and let everyone else have fun tinkering."

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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